Under the Plate, there is no light. Falseflare falls from halogen gel-lamps affixed to a durasteel sky, crushed beneath the vast enormity of Midgar City's floating surface-layer. Here dark communities wend their way in culminated clutches of poverty, working to exhaustion in thermal reactors and regrouping in dingy cash-only dive-bars. Everyone did what they could, what they had to, to survive.
He was no exception, seated on his stolen Ducati G-Bike atop North Hill that overlooked the wasteland metropolis, like he always did whenever a route ran long. Something happened here once, and for the life of him, he couldn't remember what. For now, at least, he was content to contemplate in his gunmetal-black fatigues with a ball-bashing Buster Sword on his back. He stood a cursed prophet, a dark warrior, rending rays of lunar light through a shag of blonde spikes and piercing cyan eyes. A SOLDIER, but not anymore.
His phone rang. He whipped it out like a switch blade.
"NEW SEAMLESS ORDER."
He threw on his red delivery vest, kicked his bike into fifth gear, and rode the clutch down toward the Hell that was home.
"Welcome CLOUD STRIFE, SOLDIER 1st CLASS," his bike-computer scanned his heat signature.
Down the Interstate onto the Expressway, he weaved through inner-city traffic against the shadow of the Shinra Headquarters Building, towering like a colossus of failed industrial theory. Exit for Bedford-Nostrand Ave, and he descended into the slums of lowcity under the Plate.
The riverbed was a shortcut. He cut into the divider and rode along the dried concrete bottom. Then he realized his mistake too late as a chain pulled taught across his path, sending him flying from his bike. The symbol of three trilateral lattices flared in spray-paint on the ground.
The rival gang members converged on a fallen Cloud, drawing swords, battle lances, halberds, glaives, and firearms. Cloud popped to his feet into combat-mode, and that big Buster Sword flew from his back to his hands.
They ran in with weapons swinging, and Cloud slashed in a beautiful elliptical arc to send the first three flying back against the riverbed wall. A split-second after, a tall and aggressive thug came right in on Cloud, slapping with the butt of his saber, then spinning it over full in a brutal thrust designed for a quick kill, a strong move perfectly executed.
Cloud's sword spun up counterclockwise in front of him, striking the thrusting saber in succession and driving the weapon's tip harmlessly above the striking line of its wielder's shoulder. A strong kick to the solarplexus and that guy was out of the fight-circle. Two more halberds charged in on him. He spun to the side and launched a blinding uppercut slice, deflecting both attacks. Then he reversed his body's momentum, dropped to one knee, back in line with his opponents, and thrust in low with a snap of his outstretched arms. His jabbing blunt-sided blade caught the first, and the second, squarely in the groin.
They dropped their weapons in unison, clutched their bruised parts, and slumped to their knees. Cloud leaped up before them, ready for any who would come next. He dived into a roll through a break in the circle, came up quickly, and downed a fourth opponent, who was concealed for a backstab surprise, with a backhand chop to the chest.
A gap opened in the ring of assailants. He scrambled to pick his bike up, hopped back on and gunned it out of the riverbed. Triads territory had expanded, an act of war. He'd take note and let someone who cared deal with it.
His route ran through a scuzzy neighborhood near a community college. He huffed it up to the dorms with the luckily still-hot food and rang the bell.
The customer came out—some chick—grabbed the bag and slammed the door. No tip. Cloud was half an hour late after all, but man, he fought for his life to get that food to her! But this next delivery was one he couldn't be late for. The next delivery was special, slung over the seat in his red hotlayered bag. He burned tire-tread down to the rendezvous point.
The meeting spot, a blown-out office building. His phone rang right on time. Blocked number.
Elevator music. Cloud tapped his toe in anticipation until the line went live again.
"It's Cloud. I've got the videogames you wanted."
"Ah. Hello Mr. Strife. We've been expecting your call. How will you be accepting our credit-line?"
"Uh, gil. You know, that green stuff that makes food appear on your table."
"Unfortunately, we're having a cash-flow problem at the moment. Can you front?"
"Oh man, I need the money bad."
The line went dead.
"Sonofa—" he dialed another number. It rang three times. He paced.
"Barrett, your guy bailed on me."
"He clicked on me, man! No sale!"
"Da'hell u mean no sale?"
"I mean I asked for cash and he bailed. Call him back for me."
"I don't got his number."
"How do you not have his number?"
"This ain't ebay shit! Ain't no customer service! U go through a network of fronts and blinds. U think I was born yestaday? U trying to case me!"
"Look I got the stuff right here—"
"Yeah and you gonna call me back in ten minutes sayin' you got robbed. Nigga I know how this works!"
"Oh my god Barrett. Just call your guy!"
"I like you Lil' Mo, but if you don't got my $50,000 gil by last call, you better be real good at hide' n' seek."
He heard the cold cock of a gun barrel, then the line went dead.
Heart rate increasing. This little red delivery package was more grief than it was worth…or was it? He broke his own rule: He looked in the package.
Inside were packs of C4, Semtex, and a kilo of powdery Dancer. He freaked against the side of his bike.
"OH MY GOD OH MY GOD. I'm dead! What do I do? What am I gonna do?! What am I—"
SLOW COUNT BACK FROM TEN!
A Voice, in his head.
JUST DO IT!
Deep breaths, gasping air, he started counting.
He coughed…and felt calm.
Call your man.
Silence. His thoughts became still. The Voice rescinded back into his subconscious. He whipped out his phone and dialed without thinking.
"It's Cloud. You want ice cream?"
"…Yeah. You got some?"
"Need sprinkles. Lotta sprinkles."
"Ten Thousand. All green. All in."
"Go fuck yourself!"
"LISTEN BRO! This is aint no ebay shit! I'm not your customer service rep! You know me, I will find you. If you try to rip me off, you better be real good at hide' n' seek!"
"…20 minutes at Mammy's house."
The line went dead. Cloud exhaled.
For the next three hours he flew around the lower sectors like a mad man, phoning while driving, texting with eyes off the road, swerving into oncoming traffic. A chemical rush like neurotoxin coursed through his mind, impairing his rationale. He made sales to rival gang members on the downlow.
By midnight he'd ditched the explosives and the cash was in-hand. Forty-thousand gil, heavy and haughty. Now for the last drop; the kilo of Dancer. He sped off to the warehouse districts of the Sector 5 Slums.
The Warehouses was an abandoned factory zone near the Sector's reactor where hoodrats threw house-parties and did drugs. The rave scene was hot tonight and ready to score. So was Cloud. He ducked into a convenience kiosk outside the "Zone of Alienation" and bought ziplock bags, condoms, and a razor blade. The clerk didn't bat an eye. He pulled into the back alley and parked his bike beside a trashcan, then flipped the can over and got to work.
He tied a bandana around his mouth—he didn't want to breathe anything in—and ripped the bag to spill the contents onto the flat surface. Sectioning off the powder into lines with the razor blade, he scooped them into the tiny ziplock baggies whilst looking back over his shoulder every other second. The nervewracking fear of a bogie casing him was maddening. He filled ten condoms for good measure and good luck, cutting the dope with the precision of an artist despite his shaking hand and sweat-laden brow.
Then, off to the clubs. The Warehouses came upon him in glorious sacrilege, and he came upon them like a priest in gunmental awaiting its sinful reprise. With a black sleeveless hoodie pulled down low over his eyes, he leaned against the wall heckling at the kids that passed him by.
"Hey guys. Wanna dance?"
A bunch of hoodlums with dates; he sold them a condom for $900 gil. Big groups always went in on them and they lasted most of the night. Little dime bags went like candy to under-agers and groupie girls looking for a good time.
"Hey girls, lemme teach you how to dance."
Gorgeous girls—topsiders from above the Plate—rich kids congregated down in the Slums for stimulation from their lavishly dull world above.
"Dance lessons," Cloud chanted with eyes turned downward in shade. "Dance, dance?"
By 2:AM he was riding high, bank rolls in his side-pockets and a few packets of Dancer left. But the night was waning down. Everyone who was going to the party was likely already there. He'd get no more business here. But he knew where he could get quick sales after-hours in a literal pinch. He headed to the Gutters.
The Gutters was the west outskirt of the Sector Zero Slums, a trash-heap of blinding poverty right smack below the Shinra Corporation's Headquarters Building. Midgar City's dirty little secret. He parked his bike behind a brick pile and hit the back alleys on foot.
They descended on him like vultures, hookers and skanks soliciting him with the gusto of grown men.
"Hey SOLDIEEERRRR, I got something for you right here. Right here Mister. Hey Mister!"
Women in leggings pumped their hips at him. He eyed them with the scrutiny of a horse trader. One young tawny blonde shuffled up to him—which was odd. Most girls knew the rules, don't approach strangers if they don't call you, unless you're looking to get jumped.
"Um, you got some little SOLDIER's for me?"
She was new. Strutting in her tied Gucci toe-sandals that cost a pretty penny. Runnaway. Her dirty mouth struggled like a pre-teen. How old was she? Cloud waved her to follow him. He had something for her alright.
They walked into a dumpster slot behind a blown-out brownstone. She sauntered after with that slutty swagger but Cloud saw her hands. She was trembling. A sidelong glance back the way they'd come, just a split-second of her not paying attention, and Cloud grabbed her. He dragged her behind the dumpster and cupped his hand over her mouth, covering her nose. She couldn't breathe. Clutching her close to his body, pinning her against the wall, he saw the raw terror in her eyes.
"Is this what you want? Strange men grabbing you in dark alleys?"
He threw her out onto the pavement. She toppled like a stricken idiot child.
"Go home," said Cloud. "Find another gig."
The girl picked her wits up and ran...back toward the train station. Cloud continued out into the labyrinth of side-streets.
He was a few hundred shy of his mark, and still needed a score. Time to get serious. He tread lightly into junkie land, where a mental hospital had closed down recently. The first girl he saw—a blonde burnout mid-twenties—he approached.
This was sketchy though. Cops sometimes planted traps in this area. There were ways to tell them apart though. He stood up straight and professional as he neared her.
"Hi. I'm a freelance photographer. I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing some nude modeling?"
She was. She was legit. He acted smooth, routine, like he was looking for a quick score until...
"Well, actually, I am a photographer, but I'm also a professional dancer."
Her eyes flew wide, the need. He saw the feral phase of addiction, and the seller became the buyer.
She'd been working all night. She had money. So they hit up a squat off the main byway, a lock-and-key place called "Cheap Motel." Seated sidelong on the bed, they flirted with a mirror over their lap, but she pulled out a candle and spoon from her red sidepouch. The real deal.
Unlike most dealers, Cloud didn't do his own product. He didn't do anything at all, but he knew how to get around it. While she tracked her own hit with the concentration of a surgeon, he pulled out a syringe of water from his back pocket. Her eyes were blown by the time he tracked his own hit on his full bicep. She was already loading a second dose.
Laughing with her hands sweeping his arms, she rode the rush of hormones until she passed out. OD's were nothing to girls like her, they did it all the time and lived to tell about it. But a sober guy in the room with a passed out girl was the definition of dangerous. Cloud threw her limp body onto the bed. He rifled through her purse, pocketed her night's pay…and left her there. Stealing from a hooker was bad enough.
The keys, however, were another matter. What guys did here was wait outside to buy them off whoever came out. Cloud didn't make it ten steps before a jack in a trucker hat ran up to him.
"Hey John, you see Lucy?"
"I been lookin' for'er. She owes me maaad money, yo. Like a whole clutch of gil right now!"
"Aight, sorry. Man, what a waste."
The guy slunk off like a skulking dog, and Cloud dropped the keys into the sewer grate.
He made his way back to his bike with an hour until Last Call. He stashed the cash under the leather of his seat and burned tread out of that industrial slumhole. High speeds up to the Interstate, and then onto the Expressway again. Traveling below the Plate was best done from above the Plate, unless one rode an ATV or something. Then…
The flashing strobe of siren lights behind him. Dammit. He had a few options. He could gun the clutch and hit the turnpike off the Junction—and run straight smack into the Financial District and more Shinra guards—or he could bite the bullet and skip a night in jail. Any other night he'd have jetted off at speeds a Paragon chopper couldn't catch, but the memory of the cold gun barrel click reminded him that he was on an airtight schedule. He pulled over.
The squad cars pulled up behind him and a grip of guards in Shinra stripes approached his bike. He pulled his pauldron down as low as he could over his gang tattoo.
"License and registration."
Cloud pulled the fake documents out of his wallet, praying they wouldn't run them against the computer. They didn't.
"Where's your DOT?" the officer asked.
"I forgot it at home," Cloud replied. Sometimes they let you slide with with a warning.
"You know how fast you were going, son?"
"You were a mile away from reckless driving."
"My bad, sir. I had a family emergency."
The officer caught sight of his pauldroned, gunmetal black fatigues, and his eyes peered to sharp slits.
"Nice uniform. Where'd you get it?"
Then the squaddie's eyes slid over the flattened railroad track of a sword clipped to his back.
"You got a permit for that pool cue?"
"I go through Sector 0 to get to work."
"The hell kinda work you do going through there?"
His partner ordered Cloud off the bike, stood him legs spread and hands on head against the guard rail, and patted him down.
"He's clean Squad Leader."
Cloud sighed silently in relief, glad they hadn't pulled him over five minutes ago.
"Mind if we search your bike—"
"Yessir. If you please I really have to get home to my sick mother. She's diabetic and is out of insulin."
The guard grunted. They needed permission to search a ride, and Cloud knew the drill. He didn't buy the sick mother excuse for a second.
"At arms," the guard muttered, just to see Cloud's reaction, and Cloud twitched up a little straighter—he knew the order for standing at attention by muscle memory, normally something they drill into recruits at SOLDIER A-School. Who was this kid?
"I'd write you a ticket, kid, but I doubt the city would see a penny." The Squaddie lectured him. Cloud couldn't believe he was actually being lectured! The guard eyed Cloud's taught, muscled swimmer's frame, a body most people gained only through endless push-ups in the mud and partner-pullups with someone grabbing their feet. SOLDIER training. "I can see you've got big dreams, wouldn't want to waste them."
Cloud snickered under his breath. It had been a long time since he'd heard the spiel on honor and integrity...it was nice.
They let him go and he rode the speed limit to the next exit, then blasted to 90MPH. Short time. No time.
He reached Sector 7 in lowcity out of gas, a hood the cops knew as Bensonhurst. He parked outside a run-down bar called Seventh Heaven with neon beer signs that turned off as he neared. Last Call.
Inside, the bartender hopped over the bar and went to him; a combat-boot girl with shaded eyes and ravenhair pulled in a tight fishtail. She rushed up to him and he threw his arms around her.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine. Lemme take care of this."
He patted her shoulder and beelined for the basement door.
"Barrett!" he stomped down like the law was in town.
Barrett Wallace sat reclined on a man-cave Lawson couch, a huge hand fingering the mechanism for a gun-barrel that clicked like a cricket—it was attached to his other amputated hand.
"U just on time, Lil' Mo. Latifah closed the bar five minutes ago." He flipped the safety back on his arm-cannon.
Cloud threw the satchel on the table with a glare that could outshine lasers.
"Here's your money. I want my cut. Now."
"Aight, aight, relax B. Biggs."
His two joeboys got to work counting the bills while Cloud leaned in shadowed shade against the back wall. His dagger eyes made them nervous as they muttered in his general direction.
"Who this dude anyway?"
"Somethin' you wanna tell us, boss? Like why not hire someone normal?"
"No. Why the hell would I hire normal people?"
"It's safer than hiring SOLDIER."
"You shut'cha face! He was, now he ain't. Can it, yo."
Cloud stood silent and stone as their suspicious gazes trained on him. They counted cuts and Barrett gave Cloud his personally. Cloud counted it right there in front of him again, and his eyes flew wide with rage.
"HEY! This is a ten not a hundred. You're shorting me!" Cloud squared up with the big bull-rocker of a man.
"Aight, aight, calm down Lil' Mo. You know I gets letters and numbers mixed up sometimes. Ain't no thang. Here."
Cloud handed Barrett a $1 bill. And he handed Cloud back a $100 without checking. Cloud pocketed the cash, said nothing, and stormed back up the way he came.
Upstairs, he and the girl whisked into the bar kitchen and sat on some stools by a small table. Cloud's shaded glare evaporated to the look of calculated worry that they both shared.
"I got the job done, Tifa. Here's ours. And this is for you."
He slid her $100 gil, and she gasped.
"How did you—"
"Shh." He put it under her hand and pushed it toward her, letting it rest there for a swift moment. She gave up and put it in her boot sock.
"I heard shouting downstairs and you came back late. I was getting really worried."
"Don't worry. Some craziness came up, but I figured it out."
"There's been nothing but thugs hanging around here ever since Barrett moved in. I don't know what he does down there but I hate when you take jobs from him."
"Yeah. I'm not going to work for him anymore."
A sad, shadowed look crossed her eyes.
"…You've said that before."
Just then, the barback ducked in the kitchen, a kid named Wedge Slade—not his real name.
"Hey kid," Cloud called out. "Give us a minute, will ya?"
"Oh sorry boss."
"No problem." And Wedge walked back the way he came. But when Tifa glanced back at Cloud, her eyes flew wide.
"Cloud, oh my god!" She jumped to his side, where blood streamed down his arm from a puncture site.
"It's nothing," he reassured her.
"It's not nothing, you're bleeding. What happened?"
"I took a shot of water to close a deal."
"CLOUD! I hate when you do that! You said you'd quit that job too."
"It was just a junkie round Holland Street, to get the last of the money."
But then, she stood up and took a slow step back. A look of mottled terror in her grey eyes, she braced herself.
"…what did you…?
He sighed in a slouched slump. "…I ditched the keys, Tifa. Don't worry."
"Dammit Cloud, I can't live like this! I don't know who's good or bad anymore."
"What are you talking about? We're the good guys, they're the bad guys," he pointed at the sky, the Platedwellers topside. "What's to know?"
"You're in a gang!"
"Well how else am I supposed to keep us safe! We need their protection!"
"We need to get out of here! This isn't what I bargained for when I left Nibelheim! What happened?"
"Life happened! At least we're in the city. All I've heard you do is complain about your deadbeat hometown in all the five years I've known you!"
She stopped, taken aback, as did he.
"…Sorry." He ran a heavy hand over his head and turned to leave. But she took a step forward, calling to him with eyes that needed not to cry.
"…What happened to my friend Cloud?"
Silence. A deep moment of contemplation passed before he spoke.
"…He grew up."
He left her standing there stunned as he marched out of the bar's kitchen. The Seventh Heaven had rooms upstairs, but they weren't for him. He couldn't afford them. Instead he headed back down to the basement he shared with Barrett, to the boiler room the size of a walk-in closet. At least it was warm in the winter. His clothes and belongings were strewn all over the floor, a disheveled mess that he could never seem to clean—the telltale signature of depression. He leaned his sword against the wall and slumped onto his bed, a rutty mattress on the bare concrete floor. Gazing up at his water-stained ceiling, he whispered into philharmonic dark.
"Are you going to talk to me tonight?"
No answer. No Voice.
Tossing, claustrophobic in the stillness, he closed his eyes and waited for the darkness to take him.
[Received 100 Gil]